In 1892, Ida B. Wells, a crusading black journalist, called for her readers to leave the southern city of Memphis in response to a lynching and riot. As a result, more than 7,000 of the city’s black residents left to settle on the Western frontier, part of a mass migration of African Americans to the West during the late 19th century. By the early 1900s, Jim Crow laws effectively destroyed most of their settlements, leaving their stories largely untold. But a century later, Pearl Cleage’s play, Flyin’ West, set in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, gave voice to these people. Within about two years of its 1992 Atlanta premiere, Flyin’ West was the most-produced play in the country.
In 2011, Waverly T. Lucas, co-artistic director of the Atlanta-based Ballethnic Dance Company, created a ballet adaptation of Flyin’ West. The dance-drama, which shares the play’s title and enjoys Cleage’s blessing, sheds unique light on the story of four African American women who flee the South, only to meet a new set of challenges in Nicodemus. The large-scale production, which ran last weekend at the Rialto Center for the Arts, is a major work for the company.
The ballet’s large-scale cast, combined with live performances of music ranging from African drumming to spirituals to classical works by African American composer William Grant Still, added dimension to Cleage’s story. Keyth Lee with the Shaw Temple Praise AM Choir and the Full Circle Jazz Band, plus a number of other musicians, provided live accompaniment. Narrators Yolanda Williams and Bradley Candie kept the audience in pace with the story, referencing pivotal scenes from the play that were springboards for Lucas’ choreography.
The story revolves around three sisters and a matriarch, Miss Leah, danced by Indiya Childs. The oldest sister, Sophie, alternately danced by Amy Harold and A. Laila Howard, is a survivor of slavery and tenacious protector of family and land. Her sister Fannie, danced with clean-lined delicacy by Regine Metayer, is an aspiring writer, who is falling in love with Wil Parish (Savery Morgan), an honest and soft-spoken neighbor. Nena Gilreath (co-artistic director of the company) played the youngest sister, Minnie, who was subject to the abuse of her husband, Frank. Calvin Gentry danced this complex role with a feline, sinister grace.
Lucas added a prologue, with a large cast of men and women, first laboring in cotton fields, then on a hopeful journey, all to traditional African rhythms. Historic photos projected on the rear cyclorama documented slavery, the Homestead Act that helped make their new lives possible, and the barren, grassy plains where many of these “Exodusters” settled.
Members of the HJC Bowden Multipurpose Senior Facility, led by Theresa Howard, gave a sense of group unity and hopefulness. Children from Ballethnic’s school, whirling, dashing and somersaulting across the stage, embodied the rain and wind — even tumbleweeds — of the land’s harsh climate.
The four female protagonists were introduced as Yolanda Williams read Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” capturing the essence of their femininity, individuality and pride of spirit.
A pas de deux between Fannie and Wil showed their growing love to a rendition of “Angelitos Negros.” Slow promenades, quick turns and wholehearted embraces expressed their passion, trust and mutual support.
“I Told Jesus” revealed the women’s faith as a source of power, with full-bodied, expressive gestures and dramatic floor work in the spirit of Alvin Ailey’s “Cry.”
Miss Leah’s heartbreaking story lay at the production’s heart. The character’s well-known monologue, read by Cleage, told of Leah’s experiences with slavery, brutality, love and loss. As the character recalled her youth, Childs transformed from an old matriarch into a blossoming young woman. James, her husband (Roscoe Sales), partnered her with steadfast devotion. Later, Leah remembered her departed loved ones in a haunting scene to Still’s “Weeping Angels,” soulfully rendered by Bradley Candie.
Sophie has deep determination. Her solo, set to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” expressed pride and triumph in building a home and community with optimism and vision.
But Frank’s diabolical misdeeds threatened to thwart these dreams; in Minnie’s case, they were dashed to pieces. The character Miss Ann (Brandy Carwile) showed Frank’s obsession with an imaginary white woman who often appeared as a mirror image of Minnie. After Frank drank too much, Miss Ann became a tease and source of inner torment; this drove him to beat Minnie because she wasn’t this ideal. A true villain, he destroyed her spirit and he took her land to sell to white speculators. He threatened to destroy the sisters’ hard-earned livelihood and the bond of sisterhood they have vowed to never break.
His death, caused by Miss Leah’s “killer apple pie,” created an unsettling end and posed questions about whether or not, or to what extent, suffering could justify murder. But that shadow was only suggested. The true intent behind Flyin’ West was to celebrate the strength and power of four indomitable women — a goal Lucas and Ballethnic achieved with gusto.
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